Desmond Dekker, voice of Jamaica's slums, dies at 64

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The Independent Culture

Desmond Dekker, the orphan who trained as a welder alongside one Robert Marley and led the march of Jamaican music on to the global charts, has died aged 64.

The singer and songwriter, whose 1969 hit "Israelites" paved the way for reggae and the success of his former apprentice colleague Bob Marley, collapsed from a heart attack at his home in south London early on Thursday.

He had moved to Britain in the 1970s, having witnessed the violent street culture of Jamaican cities during his childhood. His experiences were reflected in his songs and he became the first Jamaican musician to have a worldwide hit single and British number one.

A pioneer of rocksteady, the slow and soulful version of ska that was a precursor to reggae, Dekker's honeyed falsetto remained popular and he was performing until his death.

His last gig was a fortnight ago in Leeds. He had been scheduled to perform 19 concerts this summer on a European tour, sporting his trademark stage outfit of a spangly black silk shirt and military beret. One reviewer said he looked like a cross between "a veteran glam rocker and a warlord".

Delroy Williams, his manager and close friend, said: "Desmond was the first legend. When he released 'Israelites' nobody had heard of Bob Marley - he paved the way for all of them. He was at his peak fitness, he had this big tour coming up for this summer and was looking forward to it - and then that was it. He died peacefully but it still hurts."

Born Desmond Adolphus Dacres in 1941 in Kingston, the Jamaican capital, Dekker grew up listening to 1950s crooners such as Nat King Cole and jazz greats including Louis Armstrong.

After the deaths of his parents while a teenager, Dekker took an apprenticeship as a welder in Kingston. He described how he was encouraged to sing by his colleagues, including Marley, who only emerged into the mainstream after Dekker's success with "Israelites", which was so popular that it was a hit three times.

Dekker said of Marley: "We were very, very good friends. I called him Robbie, he called me Iley One - it means a person who don't have no girlfriend, just eat and sleep and work."

As optimism in the wake of Jamaica's independence from Britain turned to disappointment in the mid-1960s, Dekker found himself in a position to give voice to the frustrations of the Kingston slums. His first hit in Britain, "007 (Shantytown)", which reached 14 in the UK charts in 1966, was inspired by student riots in Jamaica, and subsequent records, such as "Rude Boy Train", had their roots in the "rude" or cool subculture of impoverished Jamaicans.

But it was "Israelites", with its opening line of "Get up in the morning , slaving for bread, sir/So that every mouth can be fed", that propelled Dekker from domestic prominence to the international stage. The song topped the charts in Britain in 1969 and reached the Top 10 in the United States.

The singer said: "It's about how hard things were for a lot of people in Jamaica - downtrodden like the Israelites that led Moses to the Promised Land."

Despite attracting a large following in the UK, Dekker's career waned as reggae went mainstream and he was eclipsed by Marley in the 1970s. After an ill-fated attempt to resurrect his career in the early 1980s, he was declared bankrupt in 1984 and complained that he had been cheated out of royalties.

But re-released versions of "Israelites", and the song's role in adverts for Maxell tapes and Vitalite margarine, resurrected Dekker's fortunes and he continued to attract a faithful following to his live shows. Dekker married in Britain and settled with his family in Thornton Heath, south London. He divorced and his grown-up son and daughter work in computers. Despite regular visits to his family and friends in Jamaica, he had not played a concert there since the 1980s.

When asked about the enduring popularity of his first international hit, he said: "That is like my signature song. Everywhere I go they relate to me with that song. Even when I get sick of playing it, my fans won't let me. When I go on stage, what they want to hear is 'Israelites'. So I never disappoint them. They know it so well that I just have to start the song and give them the microphone."